Press Conference
Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Athens, Greece
March 2, 2011


ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I’ll just be very brief. It’s obviously great to be back in Athens, I’m a regular visitor, but I haven’t been here for, possibly, a year. It’s my third trip since I became Assistant Secretary as part of our ongoing regular consultations with the Greek government, and not only the government, but civil society and other participants, on the full range of things we deal with together which is quite a wide range: Greece is an important partner for the United States, in the region, in the Balkans, in the Aegean, but also globally, as a valued NATO member. Obviously, in recent weeks, we have been particularly focused on developments in North Africa and the Middle East, and there too, the Obama Administration has made a real priority of consulting with our partners and our allies. We believe the international community should be speaking with one voice on questions like Libya, that’s why we went to the Security Council and were pleased to get international consensus on a series of measures including reference to the International Criminal Court, arms embargo on Libya, asset freeze and travel ban for key people around Qadhafi, and also, importantly, consulting with NATO allies including Greece. Secretary Clinton on Monday went to the Human Rights Council in Geneva to speak on the subject, but also to continue this process of engaging closely with allies. We know we can’t deal with this alone, and Greece, in particular, given its longstanding ties and relations throughout North Africa and the Middle East, but also obviously, geography, is a key player, so I wanted to be here to talk to Greek counterparts on that as well. And I also wanted to come and express our support for the difficult and courageous steps that the government is taking in dealing with the economic situation. Obviously we’ve been following that very closely. It’s very important to us, and I wanted to learn more about what the situation is, but also, both publicly and privately express our support for the actions that the government is taking, which we believe are necessary to put the Greek economy back on its feet and succeed in the long run. Also, I met earlier with the Foreign Minister and other diplomats and talked about regional questions including the Balkans, Cyprus, Turkey, as well. So, that’s a flavor for what I’m here for and what we’re doing and I’m looking forward to any questions you might have.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. I’ll open the floor there-- if I could ask each of you when you ask your question to identify yourself and your paper. We have a little over half an hour, we’d like for each of you to have the opportunity to at least ask one question and a follow-on. Who’d like to take the lead?

QUESTION: Could you discuss any specific…Did you discuss any specific assistance from the Greek government for the army build-up in the Mediterranean for Libya?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Be more precise about the first part, what about the army build-up?

QUESTION: If you asked for any help from the Greek government for Souda base?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: No. We have announced that Secretary Gates took the decision to deploy some naval assets in the Mediterranean, to be prepared for contingencies that might arise. And the purpose of this is simply to give the President flexibility and options as events emerge. We’re not…this is not planning for a military operation and no such decisions have been taken, but the Secretary of Defense wanted to be in a position to give the President more options, and that was the purpose of this deployment. Greece has been very helpful in that regard; again it’s not a decision about any type of intervention, it is simply preparing for what we all have to understand is a potentially unpredictable set of circumstances.

QUESTION: It’s not a question, it’s a follow up, um, helpful? Greece? Very helpful?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Greece has been very helpful. Again, from the start we’ve been consulting in terms of analysis of the situation, and then when asked to be of assistance in terms of facilitating this deployment from the United States, Greece has been a very helpful partner.

QUESTION: You said you discussed the economic situation here in Greece. I would like to ask you if you transferred any specific interest from the American side for possible investments in Greece and if so, in which domains and what was the response from the Greek side on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, it wouldn’t be my job to show up with thoughts on specific investments in Greece; obviously, we have an interest in the overall climate, and I would say that the types of reforms that Greece is undertaking are the types of things necessary to attract foreign investment from the United States and elsewhere, and we have an interest in that, we want to see it happen, which is why we are interested in the broad economic framework of what’s going on here and why I wanted to understand it better personally, but no, it wouldn’t be for me to be showing up with specific ideas about investments.

QUESTION: The Greek government and I know Italy as well and the Spanish government have aired concerns about a prospective wave of people- refugees coming from the North African coast to the Southern Mediterranean. Was that discussed today and if so, what contingency plans are you aware of that could be taken to stem that tide?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Right. Well, we discussed it in broad terms, and I would note that’s another area in which I think Greece has been particularly helpful to the world, really, in facilitating the departures on a humanitarian basis of some of the people who have been leaving Libya and Egypt, and I think it was an honorable thing to do, and that Greece did it very effectively in facilitating some of those departures on a humanitarian basis. That’s also a further reason for the deployments that we referred to earlier, to be in a position to help, again, given the surprises that we’ve seen over the past weeks, we just don’t know how many people, whether our own citizens, or others, will need to be leaving these countries on a humanitarian basis and we just want to be in a position to help if we are called upon to do so.

QUESTION: Would you like to comment on the Israeli-Cypriot cooperation on natural gas resources and its impact on the region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, you know, in terms of energy development it’s a positive thing. We are, as a general rule, in favor of energy diversification, and if countries that haven’t previously cooperated are able to cooperate to diversify their energy resources, that’s a good thing. You know, I’ve been asked before whether it has big diplomatic implications and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; I really see it as an opportunity to develop energy resources, which are critical to all of us, including Israel and Cyprus.

QUESTION: How do you see a restructuring of debt in Greece?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, you talk about this, that is something that’s really a speculative matter and I wouldn’t speculate on restructuring. As I said, what we are doing is supporting the efforts that the Greek government has undertaken to put the economy back on track, we think they’re on the right course, we think they are doing difficult, courageous and positive things, but I’m not going to speculate on any debt or restructuring issues.

QUESTION: I would like to ask you on your meeting with Foreign Minister Droutsas on the regional issues you said you discussed. If you are optimistic on the Cyprus issue because it seems like soon enough both sides will be reaching a deadlock? This is one part of the question and the other is about this new Greek-Turkish rapprochement and the whole dialogue on the Aegean and if you have the impression that it’s something that we will see developments soon or what do you think about this whole effort?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: On Cyprus, which I myself visited a couple of weeks ago, also because it does feel like it’s getting to a crucial period in the talks; there’ve been direct talks going on for more than two years, now, which we strongly support and have been encouraged by, because we have long believed that the best prospects for a Cyprus settlement are through direct talks by the leaders; we can’t impose a solution from the outside, and any solution that comes about is going to have to be acceptable to both sides, and therefore having them at the table together, is the right approach and that’s why we’ve been supportive of that. That said, I have to say we wish we had seen more progress so far. After these two years of direct talks, the parties still have a lot of work to do on a lot of critical issues, including property and security, and the failure to do so in the spirit of direct talks while you have the UN engaged, and the good offices of Special Advisor Downer, would just lead to the perpetuation of the situation and for all sorts of reasons, you know, we have long believed that to be unfortunate for the people of Cyprus, and for the people of Greece and Turkey, and for the prospects of Turkey moving closer to the European Union. So we encourage the parties to accelerate their efforts, and we’ll be as supportive as we can, while understanding that ultimately this is something that the two sides are going to have to agree on.

On Greece–Turkey, we are encouraged by the recent developments, and the intensification of talks. I think, the Papandreou government of course was, you know, when Prime Minister Papandreou was Foreign Minister, more than a decade ago, launched this process, and it was good for both countries, I think, that Greece’s view that it is in Greece’s interest to see a Turkey that’s democratic and oriented towards the European Union and has good relations with Greece is exactly the right way to think about it and it has been a positive thing for the governments to reach out, and we are encouraged when we see these joint cabinet meetings and reciprocal visits; it’s not to diminish the importance and the difficulty of the issues that the two sides continue to face, but, you know, we all know when we deal with these diplomatic maters context does matter, personal relationships matter, and the overall tone matters. And if through this dialogue, and the personal interactions of these leaders, the tone and the atmosphere can be improved, then there’s a better chance of dealing with the concrete diplomatic issues on the ground or under the sea as the case may be. So we’re encouraged by that.

QUESTION: (inaudible) …It’s not only the economic crisis, but also crisis in other parts such as illegal immigration. Does all this change the geopolitical importance of Greece? Can Athens still play a role in the stability of the Balkans?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think it can, and in some ways actually it increases Greece’s geopolitical importance because Greece is now at the crossroads of so many things that are going on, both in the Balkans and in North Africa and the Middle East and Greece is going to be a player on those issues, notwithstanding the economic challenges that it faces. But I think even, again, notwithstanding those challenges, Greece has historical ties, and interests and experience in the Balkans that make it a player and it’s a valued and trusted friend of the United States. So, I think you can be sure that Greece is going to continue to be a player on all of those issues.

QUESTION: Talking about Greece, being able to become a player. I would like to ask you if you are worried about the fact that Turkey and Israel are not on good terms right now of relations, and if you think Greece can in any part become a player in the wider eastern Mediterranean region through this newfound and new rapprochement with Israel?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, Greece’s growing relations with Israel are a positive thing and we welcome that. On Turkey–Israel, we are disappointed at the deterioration in relations between the two countries. The Turkey–Israel rapprochement was one of the most positive developments in the Middle East in past decades. Where you had two countries, a majority Muslim country and a Jewish state, overcoming those differences and really forging a diplomatic relationship, intelligence relationship, military relationship and demonstrating that it’s possible for the Middle East to be more cooperative, and Turkey was a key player because it had good relations with the Arab world and the Palestinians, but also good relations with Israel, and so at times it played a constructive role particularly in the Israel-Syria talks that the Turks helped bring very close to a resolution at one point and also between talks between Israelis and Arabs and Palestinians, so that’s why the Turkey-Israel relationship was so positive and therefore why we find it regrettable that the relationship is now deteriorating and you know we, we have important and close and good relations with both sides, and so we’re trying to use those relationships to encourage the countries to get together. It’s in nobody’s interest to see a deterioration in Turkey-Israel relations and conversely it’s positive for the whole region if those two countries can cooperate.

QUESTION: You mentioned Balkans and the Greek role as a player. The name issue, you’ve dealt with it, too long I guess. Any…actually the Prime Minister of the non-named country to our north was in Washington.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Yes.

QUESTION: Do you have an assessment of where we’re moving and light at the tunnel?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think the sides are getting closer. I think there is a commitment and a seriousness on both sides and both sides recognize that it really is in their interest to get it resolved. I know the Greek government is committed to that, I think they understand as we do that it would be positive for stability in the region and that’s the view of the United States as well. We don’t consider ourselves the negotiator, I mean just as I said on the issue of Cyprus ultimately the two sides are going to have to agree this themselves and ultimately any sort of solution on that issue has to be acceptable to both sides, but we do consider it win-win, that if such an agreement can be reached it’s not zero-sum, where one side gives and the other side gets. It’s something that both sides would benefit from and would contribute to stability throughout the region so I don’t have any breakthroughs to report but we are encouraged that the sides speak to each other, the Prime Ministers have met and again that’s the way this is going to have to be dealt with and I do hope that people in the region and in Greece see it in these terms, that we’re trying to build a Balkans of stable countries that are joining NATO and on the path to the EU and everybody benefits from that.

QUESTION: Did you discuss the pipelines issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: No we didn’t, given all the other issues we had to discuss, especially this Middle East and North Africa stuff we didn’t spend as much time on energy or so far haven’t, in the meetings I’ve had so far as it merits, because it is a big priority for the United States and the issue of energy diversity is very important to us and I think we’ve played an important role for the US-EU Energy Council and our bilateral relationships in trying to promote it. We remain strongly committed to a southern corridor which we think would benefit Europeans in many ways, ensuring supply and contributing to political independence by avoiding the dependence on a sole supplier. So we are very much committed to some southern corridor, and there are different options on the table but we’re not in the business of choosing among, but that plus interconnections among European countries and Balkan countries would be a very positive thing.

QUESTION: Do you share the opinion or the fear that what is going on in Libya now might extend in other African countries as well?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: It’s clearly an unpredictable situation and I wouldn’t venture any predictions. There can be positive spillover effects and negative spillover effects and I wasn’t sure in which spirit you’re asking the question. What is positive is when people see that they can take control of their own affairs and have a voice in their societies and build democracy, and there is great potential there for that in Tunisia and Egypt, these countries will move towards the universal principles that we respect and think should be respected everywhere. Obviously as Libya has shown it’s not a simple process and there are risks involved and there is a potential for negative developments as well, and that’s, you know, what we’re trying to do is guide to the extent we can from the outside the process in a more positive direction and that’s why President Obama was very clear, once the Libyan government decided to use force against its own people, it was clear to us that any government that is forced to resort to mass violence in order to stay in power has lost the support of the people and lost legitimacy and needs to move on. The governments in Tunisia and Egypt recognized that and did move on in a mostly non-violent way. The government in Bahrain and in Jordan have heard the street protests and responded through reform and dialogue. But the government of Libya made a different choice and it made the wrong choice and that’s why we are now taking active steps to ensure there are consequences for that choice and sending a signal to the Libyan public that this regime really is going to go and so there is no point in perpetuating the regime or the violence.

QUESTION: I don’t know if you have met or you are planning to meet with members of the opposition. I would like to ask you if you have met or what message you have conveyed to them-- did you see this collective commitment to push forward with much needed reforms in Greece?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, I will have a meeting this afternoon. Mr. Samaras is out of town, I was scheduled to meet with him, he had to leave town, so I will see his deputy and some other colleagues. But my message will be the same on reform, that you know as I said earlier, and when I said, you know, we’re supportive of these efforts that’s not, that the government is undertaking, that’s not a partisan statement, it’s simply an assessment of what Greece needs to do, and from my understanding, the main opposition is broadly supportive of similar measures, so I don’t think that’s a huge interparty debate within Greece, and so my message will be the same, that these reforms, as difficult as they are, are the types of things that are necessary to reduce the deficits, reduce the debt, inspire foreign investment and put Greece back on track.

QUESTION: This government works very carefully the terrorism in Greece… the steps. Do you believe that the steps are being made by the Greek government are on the right side or do you expect something more?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: No, we are satisfied with the efforts and the cooperation that we get from the Greek government. We know that Greece has faced serious terrorist challenges of different sorts over the years and knows what terrorism is, as we do and it’s something we cooperate on very closely and believe the government is committed to dealing with.

QUESTION: What do you mean by saying that SECTA, the organization of SECTA, is a global terrorist organization?

AMBASSADOR SMITH: This is the Sect of Revolutionaries.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Right. I think that speaks for itself and we have technical definitions of these things, and clearly from the evidence we had and have, it takes actions that threaten the United States and people around the world, and that’s why we put it on the list of terrorist organizations.

QUESTION: Yes. So, I would like to go back to Egypt and Libya. When everything started from…okay…Tunis but later Egypt, the West and specifically the United States seemed completely unprepared, you know, to deal with this. Was it a failure you think of policy? Was it a failure of intelligence services? It seems like the first days or the first week like you didn’t know how to deal with it like it was unexpected that this whole thing would happen? How could you be unprepared for this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well.

QUESTION: Especially with your friends the Israelis. Usually they have good information… warning about this.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t think anybody, however great their information might be, was able to predict the day or the week on which there’d be transformation in Egypt. We have for a very long time said, known and said, that there was a potential for change in some of these regimes that have been in power for a very long time. Secretary Clinton only a month before these events or so, you have to check the date, made a speech in Doha, Qatar in which she warned these regimes and told them, I think she used the expression ‘they would sink into the sand unless they undertook the necessary types of reform’, so we were very much focused on the problems that these regimes faced and the potential for change, while not being able to predict that one day a Tunisian fruit seller would protest in a particular way that would set off other protests lead the regime to leave there and obviously I think it goes without saying that no one could have foreseen exactly the circumstances or the date on which these things would take place even while we were very much focused on the potential for this sort of thing to happen. That said, I think we responded both appropriately, appropriately cautiously, and effectively to the developments once they started. And if you really think about it in a little bit broader perspective, I know news cycles are now every couple of hours and you know, a day late seems like a long time, but in less than three weeks we carefully helped to maneuver out of power in a relatively peaceful way, or in a remarkably peaceful way, a regime that had been in place for 30 years. And I would compare that track record to anyone’s, in terms of dealing with a potentially revolutionary situation. So that’s why I say appropriately cautiously. As this started to develop we encouraged the regime to respond through change, we did not want to own developments, and decide exactly what criteria had to be met, and this and that, but as it quickly became clear that the first steps by the regime were not enough and the people of Egypt were demanding more, we reached the same conclusion and again, I think results speak for themselves, while again understanding that we don’t know what the future holds. The international community, not just the United States, handled this in a way that helped bring about peaceful change in a place and situation where that was far from guaranteed.

QUESTION: Follow-up on that question. What is the administration’s position on recognizing a provincial or transitional government, say in eastern Libya if they ask you for that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: On that I can only say we are studying all options, the situation is very fluid and we’re considering all of our options.

MODERATOR: Other questions? One last call.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Okay. Thank you very much.

[This is a mobile copy of Athens Press Roundtable]